At least 11,000 people gathered Sunday on Tokunoshima to protest a plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Okinawa to the island.
The rally, which had been planned for weeks and was expected to draw about 10,000 people, took place only a few days after it was reported that the U.S. had rejected Tokunoshima Island as a Futenma relocation site.
U.S. officials say moving Futenma’s air operations to Tokunoshima, which is hundreds of kilometers away, would make it impossible to effectively conduct joint air, land and sea training with other marine units in Okinawa.
While those at Sunday’s gathering welcomed the news that Tokunoshima, which sits between Okinawa and mainland Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu, appeared to be out of the running, they were also worried Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan-led government might continue to push the island on the Americans. Hatoyama has vowed to settle the issue by the end of May.
The rally began with a recording of World War II dive bombers dropping their ordinance and the subsequent explosions. This was followed by a recorded female voice announcing that 65 years had passed since the end of the war and peace was restored to the island.
A succession of speakers ranging from local sugar cane workers to Diet members then took to the stage to denounce Hatoyama for considering Tokunoshima a possible base site.
“A few days ago, we heard reports the Americans were opposed to relocating to Tokunoshima. Relocating Futenma to Tokunoshima is impossible, and we’ll fight against it until the end,” said Hideki Takaoka, mayor of the town of Tokunoshima, one of three population centers on the island.
Residents cited a desire to preserve the environment surrounding Tokunoshima’s beaches and coral colonies, worries about the noise pollution a base would cause, and fears of what would result from allowing a large influx of U.S. Marines as reasons for their opposition.
Eri Nakaizumi, 23, who works at Tokunoshima City Hall, said she is concerned the bases might cause environmental damage, while resident Yumiko Haruno, 32, who has two children, said she wants to preserve Tokunoshima for future generations.
But there is also a strong sense among residents that Hatoyama, in particular, betrayed the island by not discussing his idea with local residents before it was announced in the media.
“We have no idea how or why the prime minister suddenly announced Tokunoshima was being considered as a possible location. We first learned of it in newspapers and on TV, and everyone was shocked,” Nakaizumi said.
“None of the politicians here had ever mentioned that Tokunoshima might host Futenma, and I’d not even heard rumors that it might be considered,” Haruno added.
Shock at the announcement quickly turned into widespread opposition. People of all ages were seen at Sunday’s rally, and some local media polls over the past week indicate up to 90 percent of the island’s residents would oppose hosting Futenma.